Dining at Surly Beer Hall
You may have heard there were long waits for reservations at Spoon & Stable this winter. But those lines were virtual (as far as we know). Instead, the Cities’ most notable hordes physically waiting for food and drink in the December cold were the proud citizens of Surly Nation.
The opening of the Surly Destination Brewery (read our initial impressions) establishes the once rogue upstart as a powerful bulwark of Midwest brewing prowess. Massive fermenting tanks loom over the building, a neat parallel against the disused grain towers next door. Welcome to the future!
The Surly Beer Hall is dark, sharp and imposing — as though the Shea design firm had furnished the headquarters of SPECTRE. Rows of communal tables are arrayed like pews seating hungry supplicants before the shiny Leviathan of Surly’s new 100-bbl brewhouse. It’s a remarkable scene, especially when one recalls the first humble man-cave taprooms built after the 2011 passage of the Surly Bill. Here are the industry, the jobs, the revenue, the tourism, the phenomenon — promised, and now delivered.
But is the food any good?
It’s been difficult calibrating our expectations for Surly’s menu. It certainly deserves more scrutiny than would a food truck parked outside a taproom. But what’s odd is that the menu doesn’t seem intended for beer snacking. When pretzels and bowls of chips run $7, eating at Surly means you’re in it for entree prices. Though Naseem’s Hot Chaat ($5), a nice small dish of tender, curry-spiced chickpeas with cumin-dusted tortilla chips, is your one compelling option for a quick bite.
Even with an able chef like Jorge Guzman at the helm, it’s probably not fair to expect perfectly composed dishes when the kitchen has been tasked with producing food on a scale that could sate most of Luxembourg. Since the menu prods a diner towards entrees, we’ll have to consider sit-down dining its context. Though in the future, we hope not to, because that’s not where the Beer Hall’s strengths are found.
No one has ever accused Surly of too much subtlety. It should be no surprise, then, that the highlights of the menu take no taste buds hostage. Our favorite is the unabashed flavor assault of the Hog Frites ($11) — fries doused in pepper jack fondue and chunks of tender pork shoulder, all under a smattering of giardiniera; the piquant, vinegar veggies balance the rich cheese sauce in a Baja poutine that shouts Fat! Salt! Bitter! Spice! with each gooey forkful. All of a sudden, only stray carrots remained in the spicy oil at the bottom of our basket, and we couldn’t remember the last five minutes of our life. Sure, it’s a squeeze of Donkey Sauce away from a Guy Fieri parody, but it’s perfect beer-snacking food, and we loved every bite.
Similarly, the Enchiladas ($12) on the lunch menu were a pleasant burst of spice — three long tubes of shredded pork in a fruity, spicy pool of salsa puya (think hotter than a chipotle, milder than chile de arbol), cooled down by a topping of crema and cotija cheese. Pair with a small pour of Fiery Hell ($3), Surly’s exceptional lager infused with those same puya chiles.
The Charcuterie Board ($21) had the opposite effect — muted flavors, odd value. It features chewy shavings of smoked ham, a gamy braunschweiger with a delicate sweet onion sauce, a bacon-wrapped pheasant terrine that would have been flavorful enough without the extra dusting of salt, and duck rillettes that could have used that extra salt, completely muted behind an apricot mostarda.
A good charcuterie board should display a celebratory sampling of house specialties. Surly’s board tastes workmanlike, bordering on perfunctory. And compared to other successful boards in town — Corner Table’s ($16), Bar La Grassa’s ($13), Butcher & The Boar’s ($19) — the value isn’t there.
But it’s all about the beer, the menu says, and beer duly remains the star of the show. We hoist a small goblet of Todd The Axe Man ($5) and savor its waft of citra hops, palate-slicing bitterness, and lush citrus body. A pour at the beer hall tops out at $5, and since they could have gotten away with $6 or $7, that deserves some kudos. We sip and notice a swarm of black T-shirts delivering crisp, efficient service throughout the hall. They’re ever-present yet never hovering, already a well-oiled machine.
Value questions reemerged as we wandered into the braised and smoked meats. The brisket ($22 with two sides) delivered four thick slabs atop white bread with pickles. It had a nice enough roasty char and aggressive seasoning, but it was slightly unevenly cooked. Had we gotten the same plate from a truck in Austin or Asheville, it would hardly be worth writing home about. But is that a fair comparison in the BBQ-deficient Twin Cities?
For our brisket sides, we were ambivalent about the Potato Confit ($9, full order), with its stringy ham hocks and sausage bits hovering about potatoes and sauerkraut (which could have stood to be more sour). But we adored the Roasted Cauliflower ($10, full order). It’s another all-out flavor bomb — richly spiced meets cool and creamy, with a satisfying almond crunch in the middle.
The pendulum swung back to the underwhelming side with the Beef Birra ($16), beef cheeks with radish and queso in a chili sauce. We enjoyed the deep, chocolaty roast of the beef cheeks, which were perfectly tender though a tad underseasoned. The sauce was the star of the show — powerful and tangy, another smart application of acid — but the masa dumplings were dry and tasted too strongly of raw corn flour. The plate has a fine enough flavor, but suffers from a lack of texture and cohesion.
Our most baffling experience was the sight of the Potato Chip and Kettle Corn Sundae ($7) — three scoops of Izzy’s ice cream jabbed with shards of potato chips and strewn with a paltry amount of kettle corn. Not that we expected Surly to deliver desserts worthy of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France but we were hoping for something more substantial than a haphazard array of snack food.
Right now, the kitchen operates in an uneasy limbo — not quite beer-hall food in a not quite sit-down restaurant setting. We look forward to the small restaurant space on the second level opening in late spring. When that happens, we’d hope to see the Beer Hall menu cut in half (maybe with a few more snacks) and see the entree focus migrating upstairs, where it can be cultivated on a more appropriate scale.
Or perhaps they’ll continue not to care what anyone thinks and do things according to their impassioned brand of individuality (and isn’t that why we love them?) For now, we’re more than content to strategically nibble around the edges of the Beer Hall menu while they figure out how to grow into their new space. So arise, Nation, ye cynical, ye furious — and let us all feast on Hog Frites.
Surly Beer Hall
520 Malcolm Ave. NE, Minneapolis 55414
HOURS: Sun-Thurs: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Fri-Sat: 11 a.m.-midnight
CHEF: Jorge Guzman
BAR: Beer only
ENTREE RANGE: $12-$22
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Limited / No